Republicans plan to emphasize ‘better off’ question during Democratic convention

Mitt Romney’s campaign sought to capitalize Monday on the admission that Americans are not better off than they were four years ago by a prominent surrogate for President Obama.

The surrogate, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, answered “no” on Sunday when CBS “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer asked if Americans are better off now than they were when Obama took office.

O’Malley attempted a quick pivot, declaring “that’s not the question of this election” and pinning the recession, job losses and budget deficits on George W. Bush. But O’Malley’s response nevertheless provided new fodder to the Romney campaign, which announced on Monday morning that Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan would focus on the “better off” question at an afternoon rally in North Carolina, the state where Democrats will open their national convention on Tuesday.

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In his nomination acceptance speech at last week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Romney channeled Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 asked Americans if their lives had improved under Democrat Jimmy Carter. Reagan used Americans’ economic dissatisfaction to help him win the election that year, and Romney appears determined to duplicate Reagan’s strategy and success.

“This president can ask us to be patient,” Romney said. “This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault. This president can tell us that [in] the next four years he’ll get it right. But this president cannot tell us that you’re better off today than when he took office.”

Other Obama surrogates struggled to answer the “better off” question during appearances on the Sunday political talk shows. Most refused, even when pressed, to give yes-or-no answers, sticking to the Obama campaign’s message that the president inherited serious economic problems, prevented them from turning into catastrophes, and got the economy back on track with steady—if slow—job growth.

O’Malley’s more direct answer sent Democrats scrambling to minimize the damage on Monday.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse said on CNN Monday morning that Americans are “absolutely” better off than they were four years ago.

“The truth is that the American people know we were literally a plane—the trajectory was towards the ground. He got the stick and pulled us up out of that decline,” Woodhouse said.

O’Malley also appeared on CNN Monday and said the nation is “clearly better off” today than it was when Obama took office because rapid job losses have turned into gradual gains.

But Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus indicated that the GOP—which has set up a camp near the Democratic convention in Charlotte, at the NASCAR Hall of Fame—plans to step on the gas this week, when it comes to the “better off” question.

“We set up with about 50 to 75 press folks down there,” Priebus said on CNN, “and we’re going to be ready to respond to everything that the Democrats say, and I think that the real issue this week and what you’re seeing happening yesterday on the Sunday morning talk shows is the fundamental question back on the table for Americans, which is: Are you better off today than you were three or four years ago?”